A novel epidermal growth factor receptor variant lacking multiple domains directly activates transcription and is overexpressed in tumors.
ABSTRACT The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is essential to multiple physiological and neoplastic processes via signaling by its tyrosine kinase domain and subsequent activation of transcription factors. EGFR overexpression and alteration, including point mutations and structural variants, contribute to oncogenesis in many tumor types. In this study, we identified an in-frame splice variant of the EGFR called mini-LEEK (mLEEK) that is more broadly expressed than the EGFR and is overexpressed in several cancers. Unlike previously characterized EGFR variants, mLEEK lacks the extracytoplasmic, transmembrane and tyrosine kinase domains. mLEEK localizes in the nucleus and functions as a transcription factor to regulate target genes involved in the cellular response to endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, including the master regulator of the unfolded protein response (UPR) pathways, molecular chaperone GRP78/Bip. We demonstrated that mLEEK regulates GRP78 transcription through direct interaction with a cis-regulatory element within the gene promoter. Several UPR pathways were interrogated and mLEEK expression was found to attenuate the induction of all pathways upon ER stress. Conversely, knockdown of mLEEK resulted in caspase-mediated cell death and sensitization to ER stress. These findings indicate that mLEEK levels determine cellular responses to unfavorable conditions that cause ER stress. This information, along with the overexpression of mLEEK in tumors, suggests unique strategies for therapeutic intervention. Furthermore, the identification of mLEEK expands the known mechanisms by which the EGFR gene contributes to oncogenesis and represents the first link between two previously disparate areas in cancer cell biology: EGFR signaling and the UPR.